Bellchord Hacks

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Having spent a post earlier this month being opinionated about how to render arpeggiated textures in a cappella arranging, I thought it might be useful to offer some practical tips on my preferred solution, the bell chord. After all, while it gets round pretty much all the difficulties presented in singing arpeggios, it does have its own challenges.

These challenges chiefly involve how to coordinate the parts. A keyboard player or guitarist will find it easy to play each sound source in quick succession because the means to play them (i.e. their fingers) are all operated by the same brain. A vocal ensemble is blessed with a separate brain for every sound source, which is a great boon in many situations, but makes life harder for moments like bellchords.

Fortunately, we can write them in ways that make the task easier. I’ll use a couple of examples to demonstrate the principles.

Example 1 is based on a riff in a song I recently arranged, that was originally played on a guitar, though a there is also a piano version out there. On either instrument, it provides a gentle ripple of a background for the melody with little exertion for the player. Whereas, of course, for a single singer, it would present a distinctly athletic experience that would threaten to upstage the melody as well as being hard to maintain accurately for any length of time.

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The obvious bellchord solution, giving each note to a different part, immediately makes things easier. And in many contexts, this obvious one could be a perfectly adequate solution. However, I felt in the expressive context I was using it that the off-beat feel for the lead part could invite an over-rhythmicised approach, creating a more vigorous vibe than the gentle ripple the song called for.

Hence the hack of giving each part a continuous sound, with the sounding of each note in the arpeggio articulated by opening from a singable consonant onto a vowel. This allows each singer to take the phrase as a whole line, not a series of separate motifs, with the only motor action required to execute it a small movement of the tongue. It also gives you a wash of sound behind the sounding arpeggio akin to the way guitar strings continue to resonate even while the next note is played, or the application of the sustain pedal on the piano.

Example 2 is a notional example invented for this post, but with obvious reference to any number of classic barbershop arrangements. Again, the basic arpeggiation is pretty much unsingable, and the obvious solution (a) a lot better. Bass and tenor in particular have a nice easy ride of it, as they each get to turn the corner of the harmony coordinating with the metre.
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The middle two parts though have a much harder time of it. The coming-in-on-the-second-quaver role of a bell chord is always the most challenging, and is probably the reason my first quartet never brought ‘My Cup Runneth Over With Love’ as far as performance.

On balance, my feeling is that it is easier to sing one quick, but not too wide, leap starting on the downbeat, than to try to come in on the second quaver of a bar. So my hacks for this one get bass and bari working as a team, with each entry together, then one part opening out to give the arpeggiated effect.

Option 2 (c) uses the same trick for lead and tenor, though I am in two minds about this solution at this point in the lead range. A lot of male singers will find this lying on their passaggio, and whilst they can sing a beautiful C and a beautiful E, moving quickly and repeatedly between the two might be harder to control than the gesture would be in other parts of their range. So, this can be a good solution in principle, but I’m not totally convinced in this specific instance.

(Yes, I suppose I could have chosen to present a notional example that did lie well on the voices, but then we wouldn’t have had this useful discussion of weighing up different options for different vocal contexts, would we?)

Example 2 option (b) retains the cognitive challenge of articulating the second quaver of a beat, but by making it continuous with the previous note, makes it much easier to execute vocally. A quaver rest before a second quaver always seems to invite a breath on the beat, which ends up shallow, undermining the sound, while still taking a bit too long to get in on time on the second quaver. Taking the breath out means the singer(s) have nothing to do with their vocal mechanism, just leaving the flick of the tongue to articulate the consonant. Many fewer distractions to disturb the process, and even if they do sometimes get the timing wrong, the chord will still have its root.

Other hacks, of course, are available, and I’m sure you’ll read this and think up half a dozen that you like much better than mine. Good on you, I’m looking forward to seeing them as I shop around for arrangements.

And it is this perspective that matters of course. Music where you have to climb over significant technical obstacles just to get the background right wastes rehearsal time, and saps confidence and joy from the singers. People want to sing music that leaps off the page into their voices, music that they can get into being expressive with as soon as possible in the rehearsal process. It’s our job as arrangers to help them.

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